A Poet in Center City pt.3 By Adam Fieled #31 For the second Highwire show, Jim O'Rourke installed a nitrous tank in the stairwell behind the "factory room" and manned it. Whippets were sold for a dollar and almost everyone, including us, indulged We were all in an exhilarated mood — it was now October, and attendance had doubled since the July show. We exhibited one of Trishs paintings, and she came with her sister. We were also able to show movies for the first time — our friend (and Trishs PAF A buddy) James Nguyen had two short ones, perfect for a venue and an event this size. Most importantly, the square worked cohesively (especially at keeping the money collection tasks in order, at Jim's behest), and no major balls were dropped between us. I learned about Ricky — when he had just the right kind of alcohol buzz going (we had loaded up on cases of wine for the event), he could be a sport. The best part of the night, for me in particular, was how effortless it all felt — the work of overseeing things (balloons in hand) was a pleasure for all of us. If there was a dark edge operative that night, it was that many artists were showing up who wanted to ride on the Free School gravy train, and not all of them had good or honorable intentions. John, in particular, would drink with anyone, and he was besieged with invitations. I struggled with my instinct to impose on John who he could and could not drink with. #32 By now, all of us were infected by the freewheeling spirit of the Free School. We were bummed that Bush had won a second term; but there was nothing that could be done. One of John's many chance acquaintances had bequeathed to him a little acid blotter sheet. So, one night, when Christopher and Ricky happened to be unavailable (Christopher in particular, being based in Roxborough, was in and out of Center City), we decided to trip. We started at my pad at Twenty-First and Race; the acid was slow-burn, and took about ninety minutes to sink in. We had been listening to the Stones the whole time, and by the time we got to "Hot Rocks" and "Satisfaction," I was "seeing the music." It passed in front of me as something concrete. We somehow managed to stagger over to the Last Drop, and found ourselves occupying the basement, which was dimly lit (as ever) and dank. Neither of us could sit still, and John was stuttering. I had a fortuitous inspiration — I was seeing another B & N girl named Jenny Lee, who lived around the corner on Lombard between Thirteenth and Broad We could drop in on her. She was a stoner, after all, and forbearing. We found her entertaining a bunch of her Delaware friends (she was a U of Delaware BFA). At first, John was OK. But when we smoked a bunch of weed on top of the acid, John became catatonic. He was rocking back and forth in an armchair, and wouldn't respond to questions. The Delaware crew became aggravated by John's bad vibes, so I got him out of there. The trip would've been better with all four of us on it, but what the hell. #33 One of the incidents which transpired at this time was symptomatic of Philadelphia's mixed reaction to the Free School. I asked a U of Perm staff poet to read with us at the Highwire. He demurred, and I shrugged; but Jim O'Rourke revealed that, having discovered the Highwire through us, he'd gone behind our backs and booked a huge academy affiliated poetry event there. He didn't ask any of us to read. Now, he wasn't breaking any laws, but it was a cheap move, and very not Free School. So, employing the privileged position we'd established as Highwire regulars (crucially, Jim O'Rourke didn't attempt to dissuade us), we decided to put in a unified appearance the night of the reading It was just as boring, rigid, and Academic as we had expected — the important part for us was that we stole the show. Not only was our antagonist made visibly uncomfortable by our appearance, all the Academicians appeared uncomfortable that we were there. Even just our looks ran rings around them. As I was later to learn, many academicians have beleaguered fantasies of being rock stars themselves, and want to be perceived as celebrities. The Fab Four gave them a pungent dose of the real thing. It was enough to make me think that Jim O'Rourke, who had smoked us all up in the factory room beforehand, had the whole thing planned when he booked the Academy reading. #34 Not all of the Highwire Free School shows were big ones. We would do series of modest shows between the larger shows. The Bats were an all-girl band we wanted to book, so we did John and I did a bunch of schmooze routines with them, at Tritone and elsewhere, and John and I were both in love with Tobi, an old friend of Trish's who played keyboards (and also painted). Tobi was tiny, an elf, with exquisite bone-structure in her face, straight dark hair, and bright blue eyes. Of the Bats, she was the most natural as a Free School person. By this time, we had a new system going at the Highwire, by which the factory room and the main space would be used simultaneously. The night the Bats played, we had poets reading on a raised dais in the factory room The factory room had high ceilings, but was darker, danker, and more private than the main space — a perfect place to smoke up or hook up. The poets were Temple kids, and one stuck out for us immediately, especially to John; a buxom, olive-skinned Latino named Lena. If I sensed that I would beat John to Tobi, he would certainly beat me to Lena, who liked his looseness over my rigor. Christopher and I were attempting to perfect a new way of combining poetry with visual imagery; he projected images on a screen behind me as I read that night. Frankly, we were both bored with dry poetry readings (no matter how attractive the participants), and this was our way of extending their range. Headed towards 2005, John's characteristic looseness was the keynote mood. Even if it meant that Christopher and I had to up the ante to six drinks per night out. #35 Baptiste Spurn had a birthday party at around this time at his studio at 13th and Carpenter. I wound up being the only Free School guy there. The four of us each had different sectors to work, and Baptiste's was one of mine. At the time, Baptiste had a menage situation going he was living not only with a stripper /burlesque artist named Lissybut with a couch-surfing teenage runaway named Anastasia Anastasia was a wild child She later tried to jump from one of the Highwire windows. That night, she insisted that everyone strip We were passing around a bottle of Stoli; people were downing three or four shots at a time from the bottle. I decided to do them one better and down seven. For about fifteen minutes, I felt an overpowering sense of swirling ecstasy. Then, I got hit with a wave of nausea so intense I almost fainted Everyone was very drunk and very stoned; I managed to drag my pile of clothes to the side of the circle and put them on. I didn't want to vomit all over the studio. I knew myself to be performing what was, for me, the greatest Intoxication Feat of all time — despite all the vodka-shots, I walked all the way from Thirteenth and Carpenter to Twenty- First and Race at 2 am without puking. If I spent the rest of the night violently ill, I had done the right thing by the Free School; saved face before the big Intoxication Heavyv\eights of the Free School nexus, and entered the charmed circle (with John and Ricky) of the alcohol poisoned #36 At this time, John and I established an ancillary beat to the beat we were doing in Philly. Who's to say that, given the proper venue, Philly Free School couldn't conquer Manhattan? John's sister Kyra lived on the Lower East Side. She was a burgeoning fashionista Kyra looked like a female John; long curly dark hair, dark eyes, slightly olive skin. To John's dismay, we clicked immediately I was aggressive in those days, and Kyra and I flirted aggressively. Meanwhile, I was looking up my NYC contacts from the Nineties. The big hook-up was Samantha Fry, a singer-songwriter I met at the Sidewalk Cafe back then doing anti-folk and who was still my friend I was also in touch with Jeff Kim Chung a Swarthmore grad I had worked with at B & N who was now doing a fiction MF A at Columbia. With Kyra's fashion contacts, we had the rudiments of an NYC Free School circle in place. The big venue target seemed to be the Bowery Poetry Club. Every time we went to NYC, John and I stopped in there to chat up the staff. We eventually got the e-mail of the guy who ran the place. He was slow to respond And while we tried to get Ricky and Christopher in on the NYC shenanigans, it was clear that the problem was housing. Kyra could fit John and I comfortably in her little studio; but all four of us would have been absurd. I was hoping to court both Samantha and Kyra. John and I were still doing our pot ri books routine at B & N in Philly, and the whole Free School adventure became like living in a haze. If there was a rock beneath us at this point, it was Jim O'Rourke. We still, all of us, had the Pfighwire like a fist, and that was still where we had the most fun. #37 The next time John and I hit NYC, we went with Kyra to see Samantha play solo at a club on Ludlow Street. I spent the night flirting with both of them. At one point, we were all sitting on a couch, and I had one on either side of me. We must've looked outrageous. Samantha lived far away in Brooklyn, whereas Kyra was only a few blocks away. Plus, John and I had a bunch of things to do the next day. So, I decided to stick around. Oddly enough, I never got another chance to hook up with Samantha. Kyra and I were hot and heavy all over each other. John, in the next room by the end of the night, just had to take it and go to sleep. I knew I was being cruel, but my blood always mastered me in those days. I was too aroused to be scrupulous. The next day, the three of us went to see John Ashbery read in the West Village. We also stopped in to see our contacts at BPC, and it looked like we were finally going to get a date. John was only slightly more moody than usual. As for Kyra, I could tell that the night before hadn't been a big deal for her. I had it in me to be smooth about moving on too. John and I slept on the Chinatown bus back to Philry. Because John and I were both decent raconteurs, I guessed that the story about Kyra and I would do the rounds very fast. During a promiscuous era in Center City, I knew that the recounted drama would be all to the good. I could also sense in the air that some kind of drama would come to a head between Ricky and I. #38 In the bars and the clubs, artistic types were beginning to migrate towards the Free School crew when we went out together. We didn't always have to search aggressively, or to be "on" anymore. I don't recall how we came to meet Heather Mullen. The first memory I have of Heather is of her sitting with us for some reason at McGlinchey's. Perhaps we met her there. She was tallish, about 5'7, handsome rather than pretty, in a thick-browed, Frida Kahlo-ish way. She was writing novels. She and Ricky were combustible. But the knife-edge current in the air, even on this first night, was that she wanted me too. I hung back, and let Ricky win, which was painful but (I felt) necessary. Ricky and Heather became an item almost instantly. In a way, Ricky was a more apropos target for Heather — they were both authentically self- destructive. They were also, I was later to find, derisive about me behind my back We arranged a reading specifically for the five of us at Molly's Books in South Philly. Oddly, Heather's heart-on-the-sleeve prose aligned her more with John Rind than with Ricky, who tended to ape the loopy surrealism of Foster Wallace and the McSweeney's crew who were big then One reason I had brought Sara Blount back into the fold was for her to meet Rick)? — they were firing off on similar literary cylinders. Somehow, the meeting never came off — Sara was a delicate bird, easily frightened away. But Heather stuck And as she and Ricky were soon living together, and as she was dragging all her social contacts (some artists, some young politico types) to Free School shows, the whole Free School experience was deepening and darkening into something more personal, more "felt," then it had been before. #39 When the square was initiated, the only circuit which didn't function properly was Christopher-Ricky Over the course of a year, more tension developed as the John-Ricky circuit became more active. When The Drinkers drank, they liked to take the piss just generally because Christopher could be awkward, and his social mannerisms were so unique, he was easy pickins' for The Drinkers in general. Ricky was constantly goading John to be harder and more callous; John wanted desperately to be impressive to Ricky and idealized him as a big brother figure; both The Book Nerds bore the brunt of their chemistry, but Christopher in particular got victimized Predictably, Ricky lorded his relationship with Heather over us, and being sexually active stimulated him to greater displays of rambunctiousness. Ricky wanted to invert things; to place himself at the top. My strategy against him was to keep working my circuit with John on a day-to-day basis, so that we could work without Ricky getting in the way. At this point, we worked towards another big Highwire show, with Baptiste and his band (ElektroWorx). We even had a place for one of Baptiste's DJ friends. By the time the show happened, Jim O'Rourke was there with a nitrous tank again. This time, throngs of teenagers from the suburbs showed up. Jim wisely hid the nitrous tank, as the Highwire momentarily went "rave." #40 Lena, the Temple student who had read with us more than once, was on the scene quite a bit then She and John were very tender with each other, and Ricky liked to play up the "double date" angle and bring Heather in on the action I wasn't seeing anyone steadily, and detested feeling like a fifth wheel. When this formation emerged, I would leave. It's just that Heather and I had a little secret pact going and knew it. By Bloomsday '05 (June 16), we had entered into a full-on affair, and Ricky was out. All the while, John and I had picked up the cudgel to put together a huge poetry reading at the Khyber, patterned after the Poetry Incarnation reading in '65 Swinging London. It wasn't an entirely joyless enterprise, but without Christopher and Ricky there was little espirit de corps. Now we just felt like ordinary hustlers; even if, for the first time, the Philly press were showing some interest in us. We hammed the event up verbosely for them The darkest cloud on the horizon for me personally was D.P. Plunkett and his crew. The Free School had found ways to upstage them, but we were falling apart. The Plunkett poets read at Poetry Incarnation '05 with many others; but they were morose at the event because we didn't treat them like stars. They reacted by concocting a spurious tale that I had withheld money from them and began to circulate it after the event. If I wanted to survive, I knew I'd have to stop dissipating my energies and focus on poetry in a singular way. There was no other way to conquer the Plunkett goons; and I'd learned that art events are all too transient. There was little in them left to keep. I had one major piece out in Jacket Magazine; it was time to build on it. #41 Times had changed in America, and in the Western world in general. The Free School had taken some notice of the Internet; we had a blog But a vista had opened for me with poetry and the Net — I saw an unlimited amount of possibility in that conjunction. After all, poems are compressed and can be read relatively quickly. During the autumn of '05, 1 turned the Philly Free School blog into a poetry journal — PFS Post. With PFS Post came an era during which I wasn't "in the street" as much. It was an auspicious time to rein myself in — John Rind, especially, had been caught in a social maelstrom with Free School hangers-on who had now migrated over to the Plunkett goons. It was a sick, alcoholic, head-smashing scene. The gossip and back-biting were terrible. The remnants of our social network were lost in absolute entropy — and if I didn't work fast and hard, I'd have been lost too. I myself was also drawn in to attend some Plunkett readings at the time. It was a scene of poseurs and flatulently undereducatedblowhards — but they were well-connected in Philly, more so than I was, so I couldn't afford to ignore them John and I disrupted them by being physically attractive — they looked like mongrels and dogs. They even had the nerve to follow our lead and do readings at the Khyber. The first lesson I learned about the serious poetry world was an important one — the vast majority of poets are physically unattractive and (for the most part) sexually inactive. Those who signify actual sex, as John and I did, are abhorrent to them. I made a quick decision — I wasn't going to give up sex to be a poet (and I did mean hetero sex). That sacrifice would be too great, especially as fecundity of mind often follows from fecundity of body. #42 The other key decision I'd made was to pursue a graduate education past my MFA. Many poets (especially avant-gardists) in the Philadelphia area had PhDs. So, I applied to a bunch of PhD programs, and received the University Fellowship to study and teach at Temple University. This meant a stipend and health insurance benef its — I wouldn't need to work at B & N anymore. I had no intention of becoming a pedant (especially where the arts were concerned), but teaching at the university level seemed like a reasonable way to earn a living. I was still doing my MFA, but was rapidly evolving into an avant-gardist (avant-garde tereain in contemporary culture being intellectually richer than standardized) and so couldn't learn much from a faculty dominated by sentimentalists and Pulitzer bed-warmers. I began, past Jacket Magazine, to publish internationally as well, especially online. The Plunkett poets were provincial in comparison, and while I couldn't compete with their Philly connectedness (some connections were Old Money ones), I could begin to connect myself on other levels. The Center City art scene at this time, not just us and the Plunketts but the DJs, musicians, and impresarios who ran the club-nights we'd been competing against, was growing rather dark Everyone seemed to be drunk all the time. If it was a train- wreck, it was a fascinating train- wreck — all the exhibitionism was dramatic and intelligent (John and Ricky were exemplars); but I was working towards writing actual books, and Center City for me began to be a more solitary place. I wanted to survive the wreckage. #43 By the time I finished my MF A in mid '06, 1 had two operative blogs — PFS Post and Stoning the Devil. Stoning the Devil I used for lit-crit and general commentary The final summer residency was an anti-climax; no drama with profs, no sex. I spent the residency reading "Infinite Jest" and writing a new series of poems I called "Madame Psychosis." It was an experiment in a new kind of poetic portraiture. By the time I began at Temple in August, I was ready to submit a manuscript with "Madame Psychosis" and a few other new series (serial writing having become one of my stocks in trade) to a major publisher. The manuscript was called "Beams," and was accepted for publication some time in '07. Christopher was staging a series of events around his photographs; I helped him when I could John was on the bar scene as usual. Through Temple, I met a group of poets in my age group who had recently descended on Center City from Amherst, Massachusettes. They were very status-conscious, and were status-seekers themselves. They had some Free School- level moxie around alcohol and drugs, even if they seemed frigid in other ways. I learned from them The wisdom they taught me was dark — that unless you have a clan of poets to work out of, you're unlikely to make it as a poet in America. The Plunkett poets weren't quite enough to teach me this lesson, but after the Amherst crew I never forgot it. I also never forgot that I was staking my claim on iconoclasm — living a life as a sexually active heterosexual male not affiliated with any particular group, including (by this time) the Philly Free School. I could only survive by going against the grain, and I knew as much. #44 What was new to me then was being alone in Center City. It was no longer the case that every time I left my apartment, I was guaranteed a new adventure. I became more settled in my habits. The Last Drop was convenient for me in many ways; it became part of my daily routine. I would sit there with a stack of books and do my academic work and write. John at this point was on his way out, off to L. A. to do video work Christopher I saw fairly often; he was engaged briefly, then that broke off. Ricky studiously avoided running into me, though he was situated at Temple too. The Temple campus, in North Philadelphia, was a disappointment — a concrete jungle. Anderson Building where dwelt the English Department on floors nine-eleven, was particularly hideous — a sky-rise done in tacky "nouveau" style. The English Department had all uncarpeted floors, and I was given an office with no windows. Because it was so forbidding being on the Temple campus always elicited a crepuscular feeling in me. I was both doing and attending random readings around Center City but none had the cohesive magnetism of the Free School shows. Many of the Center City streets seemed to have languished into deadness with the coming recession, or perhaps been petrified. I came up with the term "visionary deadness" to describe Center City then. It was a contradictory term, and meant that way. When I found myself reunited with Trish, I still enjoyed the ambience of West PhiUy — the Satellite Cafe, Mariposa, Clark Park Anything at a substantial tangent to Center City, yet still related to it, worked for me (including Temple) when I was in the right mood #45 I had begun to visit Chicago every six months. The visits were oriented around poetry and poetry readings. Wicker Park in Chicago reminded me very much of Manayunk in Philly, and the Loop was interesting to me for being as clean as the nicer bits of D.C and having the scale of Manhattan. Times were dark for me in Center City — not only because I'd broken up with Trish again, but because I was on the verge of all-out war with the Plunkett poets. I was gaining power and cureency — I was out-publishing them But the fight wasn't really fair; it was a group of them against one poet, standing alone. The main circuits they engaged were gossip-oriented circuits — I was constantly being slandered in places I used to love, like McGlinchey's and Dirty Frank's. John, when he was around, would always (I later heard) rush to my defense; but many minor Free School characters had defected and were arrayed against me. I reacted to these pressures (and the pressures of my career at Temple) by redoubling my efforts, especially where the two blogs were concerned It worked; I soon had a substantial audience for both blogs. That Center City could feel like a battle-ground was something I hadn't known before. Plunkett, in particular, was absolutely maniacal about getting me the hell out of his way, and (unfortunately for me) he had Temple backing to do it. What saved me, quite unequivocally, was the Internet. I had a life online they couldn't touch. The Internet was its own "New Art City," which held as many levels of excitement to it as Center City Philly had when I first arrived here.